Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The End and the Beginning

Each time I write I die a little. Putting words on a page isn’t simple, even when they’re flowing at an exhilarating pace. What’s emerges comes from places deep inside me. And as I venture there, I find myself afraid, anxious and eager. As if I were once again a teenager about to go on a first date.

It may seem odd to be writing about dying during the Holiday Season. But this time of year is full of emotional traps and this year that’s particularly true for me. It's the year's end and I’m feeling very vulnerable.

As a writer, I travel through landscapes full of memories and thoughts; some painful and bitter, some bursting with laughter and warmth. This year, I’ve taken it upon myself to search more deeply for what these moments mean. I’m searching for what lies in their depths. I’m looking for the lessons, the small cues I may have missed that could empower me. The lessons that might help me to be finally free of the things that I’ve brought forward from my past.

A few days ago, while meditating, I saw my mother. For the first time she was smaller than me. She was actually shorter by several inches, but her dark bitterness cast a large shadow that haunted me for years. In my meditation, I found myself walking at my mother's side. We were holding hands, but she was the child and I was the adult. In vignettes I saw the perils, the fears and loss that were part of her childhood; the polio, the flooding in the oilfields of Texas. The young girl without a mother.

You see, my mother murdered her own mother. Not as a conscious act, but under the direction of a physician over the telephone. My grandmother died in my mother’s arms and although were other things later on in life that made her the angry woman she became, I believe that event was the most dire of all.

Coming out of the meditation wasn’t a hallelujah moment. It was merely a quiet letting go, a feeling of relief. The child that was part of a cycle of pain and anger died. The things my mother did to me were hateful, but it's time to let them go.

Thich Nat Hahn says that when someone dies we must live more fully for them. And as my mother's genes, and my grandmother's cells are all a part of me, I can live more fully for all three of us.

I confess that my decision to consciously practice dying has had me praying to the Gods to hold my hand – no one should have to die alone. And I’m grateful to feel their presence nearby. It may be that I will die physically in my sleep, or instantly in an accident. But practicing dying everyday is something I highly recommend.

As I ventured further into this process, I decided to call once again my dear friend and spiritual counselor, Abdi Assadi . Here’s what he said - "In my experience of being around dying people, most of us leave in the middle of something. Very few of us leave when our egos are ready. It’s good practice to see what feelings come up when we do have to leave things unfinished."

Abdi’s meditation: In your mind, release all that you hold dear, all activities, pains and loves that surround you in that moment. Pay attention to the emotions that come up. Your reluctance to let go - both the good and the bad. And practice letting them go. If you're reading a book, stop. If you're watching a movie, stop. Walk away. Let it go.

With that in mind, I, Sam, am an adult. I’m unfinished. I’m angry. I’m compassionate. I'm loving. I’m my mother's daughter. I'm my daughter’s mother. I’m every mother. I’m foolish. I’m wise. I want to finish this post. I’m a writer. I’m dying...

Saturday, December 12, 2009

For All the Trees I've Known and Loved

From the time I was six and ran away to spend the night under the sheltering branches of an avocado tree, to those moments when I find a really big beauty and slide down to settle in the lap of its roots and meditate – I love what trees do for me. Like the mythical World Tree that links the heavens, earth and the underworld, their vibrant energy breathes life into my body and soul. Trees heal.
But as my readers know, I harbor an inner Grinch over Christmas, the mass slaughter of trees. The decorating of trees with glitter and cheap shiny paraphernalia. There was a time when the ancient practice of tree worship had a seductive hold on humankind. Trees were linked to immortality and fertility and their worship emerged in various forms. Some cultures used trees to capture the demon that held a tormented soul in its grip. From Africa to the Northern Plains states, pilgrims traveled thousands of miles to visit Wishing Trees, whose secret locations are carefully handed down from generation to generation.
Despite the slashing edits to the Bible by Constantine, there remain references to the power of trees. Jesus said there were five trees in paradise, which never lost their leaves and granted immortality. St Thomas alluded to the five manifestations of greatness to the five words for mind; sanity, reason, mindfulness, imagination and intention. Some believed that these five manifestations were somehow linked to the meaning of the five trees.
This tree worshipper gave her daughter a pear tree for her wedding. But even today, although my feelings have mellowed somewhat about Xmas, I still suffer a mild guilt from bringing that living green inside. I know that tree farms make a difference and there is the added blessing that many of these farms tithe a portion of the monies to non-profits.
The ornaments Chloe and I accumulated are a different story. While searching for some documents, the memories of Xmases past came tumbling out of a small box high on a shelf. Worn with pieces missing, this odd collection is no less dear to me for its tattered condition. It has the patina that only love can give. A seashell Chloe had found on Venice Beach; a pair of wooden clothespin dolls – the boy painted black with a crooked red pipe cleaner halo. The girl is dressed in a long gold skirt and has a strapless top knotted in the front. Her long blonde hair sprouts straight up from her head. Miniature dolls that belonged to my mother - a fireman in a felt suit and red cap; a baby with hand crocheted dress are followed by a clay heart from Chloe’s Waldorf School days. It was broken in half. As I held the two pieces, I thought about my daughter, who will be spending Xmas in Lebanon with her husband. (The good news - I’ll be seeing her before Xmas and after.)
The brightly hand painted clown hat we used to cap our Xmas trees is going on the plane with me this holiday season. A lovely touchstone, a token of deep connections that exist across distance and time. Perhaps, there will be a tree near the house where I’m staying. If so, I intend to give it the hat in honor of all the trees I’ve loved and will love; the wild, the old, the new and those that are still a seed.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Grinch Surrenders: 8 tips for green gifts and giving for kids.

Okay, I confess – for years I was a Christmas Grinch! Hated the holiday and the hoopla that surrounded it. But, looking back, there were some memorable moments.
When Chloe was six I caved and bought a real tree – a small one as I wasn’t entirely ready to let go of my cranky Grinch. My poor daughter had already suffered through a spray painted tumbleweed with lights and bulbs, a fake spray job from the drugstore with fake elves. The real thing didn’t look bad but Chloe wanted more tinsel. And when you have a daughter as beautiful as mine, and you’ve promised to a ‘real Xmas’, you go out and get tinsel. Never mind that it’s already nine o’clock on Christmas Eve. After a quick foray to a shop on La Brea, we headed toward the car when suddenly a homeless man with a long beard emerged from behind a dumpster. Even from a distance, I knew we could have started a fire with a match to his breath. “Got any loose change, lady,” he called, shuffling in my direction.
I’m not heartless – I try to carry in the back of my car fruit and sandwiches, clean pairs of socks (something the homeless always need in cold weather). This man wanted money. At the time, I was living in Hollywood and had lots of courageous friends in AA, but Christmas Eve, with Chloe along, wasn’t the moment to try for rehab of any sort. At least, I told myself, a few dollars for some booze and he’ll be warmer tonight. Rummaging in my purse, I came up with a ten – all the cash I had and handed it over. His eyes grew large, and then he threw up his arms, and headed toward me. “Lady, let me give you a kiss,” he shouted.
I told him no thanks, but he kept coming. The two of us faced each other over the hood of the car, and circled a couple of times. Me telling him thanks! Really! Gotta go! Chloe was already in the front seat - giggling like a maniac.
I made my escape and as we pulled out of the parking lot, I heard him yell…I love you! Merry Christmas!
By now, you know that Chloe and I never had a truly traditional Christmas. I wasn’t that kind of Mama, and although I have some regrets about that, she’s doing really great. And that’s all a mother can dream of!
There are lots of wonderful ways to have a meaningful Xmas that connect with the spirit of giving. Chloe and I served Xmas dinner at Cecil Williams’ Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. Glide has one of the biggest outreach programs in the country and their foundation has an online website for making donations easy ( www.glide.org ). In his 80’s, the dynamic African American Reverend Williams still heads the church. Ex cons park cars, their health programs, programs for women, job programs, story telling groups, to name a few, are part of what makes this church so special. If you’re in town, attend one of their services. It’s a real high. Open to all faiths it’s not strange to find yourself with a mix of believers from different faiths. The choir wears tie-dye robes and their gospel songs rock. Glide is San Francisco at its best!
You might gather a group of friends, and pool your funds for some Christmas turkeys. I did this pre Chloe with some artist friends. We found needy families and delivered the big birds on Christmas Eve, along with bags of veggies, cookies and fruit. It actually makes for a great family outing. If you’re busy, take shifts, or choose a designated driver and have your kids go along. Be sure to bring – sigh - lots of Christmas music and have your own songfest while driving. Or, if you’re really swamped and have no time, find a market that will deliver a bird or two to a church.
This year, an eco friendly Xmas makes the season extra special. I’ve been looking for ideas at two of my favorite green websites, www.inhabitat.com and www.inhabitots.com. Here are 8 eco friendly stocking stuffers and gift ideas for kids:

1. Tree blocks – toys from discarded sections of trees and look like
tiny logs ( www.inhabitots.com )
2. Bamboo toys of all sorts – bamboo grows 3 feet a year!
( www.inhabitots.com )
3. Recycled sweater stockings for the stuffers. (www.inhabitots.com)
4. A battery charger so you’re not always buying batteries! (any
drugstore, Target or Bed, Bath and Beyond.)
5. A permanent water bottle – add names, stencil designs of your own.
6. A bamboo framed drawing for a parent or a child.
7. LED anything; key chains, decorated bedside or bathroom lights that keep
away the monsters at night
8. Make a throw made out of recycled men’s ties (I found mine in a
flea market in Paris and made another when that one
disappeared from ties I found in thrift shops.)

Inhabitots also has a slew of eco friendly gifts that allow family and kids to nurture the spirit of green giving. They include solar powered laptops for children in developing countries, handcrafted tote bags made by women in India. The money for the tote bags goes toward employment for widows, abandoned mothers and unmarried women. You can adopt an acre of rainforest land from the Nature Conservancy or with as little as $25, micro-finance a small business on Kiva.org.
For homemade eco friendly gift-wrapping, cut a raw potato in half and carve a design on the top center. (It’s how they made wallpaper designs at the turn of the century). Dip them in green or blueberry teas, cranberry juice or food coloring. Then stamp recycled brown paper bags; the kind with handles. You can find all sorts of beads, unusual ribbons and odds and ends at a crafts store to dress them up a bit.
It’s hard to find a kid (or an adult) who doesn’t like to make and sample homemade cookies. I happen to like gingerbread men, or sugar cookies in assorted shapes. I gave out 20 bags to clients one year. They loved them. I actually had requests for refills. I used recycled paper gift bags and tied the handles with ribbons. On a handmade card (recycled paper with crayon and water colors), I wrote these lines, which I’m now sending to you!
Christmas isn’t only for kids and angels don’t always have wings..

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Calling to the light: A Ceremony for the Winter Solstice

   I'd come for lunch with Blanche, who lived on Bliss Street and went home with much more.  In her 80s, with a sweet tooth, she believed she might die before the meal was over.  Why not have dessert first?  She was celebrating being alive, the sweetness that can be found in the now.
     A compelling force for rituals, Author Joseph Campbell, ( The Power of Myth) described the power of now when he wrote we are seeking to "feel the rapture of being alive.  Rituals and ceremonies help us find the clues to this within ourselves."  Through rituals, we celebrate our passage out of the darkness.  We heal our wounds from battles with our personal demons.  Metabolizing what we learned we're ready to share the stories of our warrior wisdom.
    Light often plays a significant role in rituals, in the form of candles, a fire, at dawn or dusk.   Rituals can be dramatic, or appear in the form of small Zen like moments.  In Brazil, an old man told me of a daily evening ritual before electricity.  At dusk, as lamps were lit, each family member, each friend would turn to the other and say 'Good evening.'  How many times do we take a moment when we turn on the lights to honor the transition from day to night?  In doing so, we embrace each other, the safety of home, and the unity of our circle.
     While staying in a 12th century villa in Chianti, I made evening rounds to close the wooden shutters over each window.  As I said good night to the stars and the small bats that swooped past the panes, I became aware of slowing down; a prelude to sleep and dreams.
     On the morning round, I was awarded new vistas - gardens, olive trees and medieval villages on distant hilltops - all touched by light.  It was a very large villa with many shutters and windows which extended my pleasure.  By the time I reached the kitchen I was dancing!  Colors seemed richer, deeper; smells and tastes had textures and layers as the new day became a gift waiting to be unwrapped.
     Each culture has developed different rituals celebrating similar passages in life; the seasons, birth, coming of age, love, marriage, healing and dying.  Particularly fascinating to me are the rituals for Truth and Reconciliation that emerged in South Africa with Nelson Mandela's intent for a peaceful transition through forgiveness and healing.  Traveling committees were chosen to be objective observers.  Former local apartheid members stood in the front of a large community room to listen as each villager told his or her story about the horrors, loss and grief they'd suffered under apartheid.   Then, the accused acknowledged their participation in those acts and asked for forgiveness.
     These ceremonies had much older roots in tribal traditions across the African continent.  They inspired more ceremonies further north with the child warriors.  Most in their teens and 20s, these anguished souls sat in the center of a circle.  They spoke of being brainwashed and tortured to commit atrocities against their own families and friends.  The tribe listened and answered with stories of grief and pain at losing their children.   Sometimes, the process took days.  When everyone agreed all that needed to be said had been said the circle opened up to song and dance.  Some tribes gave the prodigal an egg to crush under foot during the dance; symbolizing the birth of new beginnings.  Mandela called in the light and when he did, the whole world felt lighter. 
     Personally, I've never understood why schools send children who are acting out home where they are often alone and without guidance.  Where their anger and confusion festers.  What if we were to send volunteer teams trained in compassionate communication to create their own circles?  What if our children would learn to listen deeply, without judging.  Learn of forgiveness, conflict resolution and the healing and unity.  They'd be calling in the light. 
    As a storyteller, a writer, an activist, a spiritual woman, I'm often reminded of the title of Zora Neale Hurston's wonderful book 'Their Eyes Were Watching God."  It doesn't matter whether a circle is Quaker, Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist or Pagan.  Whether its members call to Jaweh, the Great Spirit or profess to not believing in god, I believe we're all connected in our humanity. That we all have the potential for goodness.
    December 21st is the Winter Solstice, the darkest, shortest day of the year.  It's also a day I experience a quickening at the returning of light the next day. This year I see the Solstice as a powerful metaphor for the darkness, the economic meltdown, the conflicts that fill the headlines and the light that's spreading worldwide.  The light I've heard in stories of children gathering pennies to build wells or send food to Darfur.  I've seen it in the beauty of African women who've planted tens of millions of trees.  I've rejoiced when I heard about the organizations that micro-finance businesses for women in South America, the Far and Middle East; with www.girleffect.org that raises money to send young girls to school. 
    I'm not Pollyanna.  There will always be turmoil and stress; sometimes more than others.  However positive change is occurring.  And so, on the 21st of December when the light changes, I'm going to celebrate by sending out my own light and my prayers. 
      Where I am, at midnight (EST in my case) the first candle will be lit.  Perhaps, there will be a circle of candles held by family and friends.  It may just be me and the dogs, thinking of the rest of you as we empower each other in our work for positive change.  My circle will begin with the eldest and finish with the youngest, lighting candles one by one.  As each individual lights the next person's candle, we will say "Please share this light, in mind, body and spirit."  And when everyone is finally holding a lit candle, "We are the light."
     I hope you'll join me!
 
 

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Soup's On: Finding Good Health and Community in a Bowl

     Living in Rome, I was richer in love and friends than money.  Our apartment, located in the old part of the city, was in a building several centuries old.  Railroad style, all the rooms were off one hallway and it had no kitchen.  Easy to handle in summer, but in winter there was only one way to cook - slowly - on the radiator.  Soups and stews became staples in cold weather.  It was easy to eat locally in Italy with fresh in season vegetables, pasta, beans and whatever else caught my eye in the daily neighborhood open-air markets.  
     One of my favorite meals was lentil soup.  Hearty, high in dietary fiber and protein, low in calories these small beans have an earthy, nutty flavor.  In the book of Genesis, Esau gave up his birthright for a bowl of crimson lentils and a loaf of bread.  
     During the Depression Era, communal eating sky rocketed, and soup was often the only dish on the menu - creating the impression of plenty in a time of little money.  What we do, the creativity that emerges when our backs are to the wall can be entertaining and remarkable.  MFK Fisher, in her delightful book How to Cook a Wolf shares her love of food during WWII when food was rationed in Europe.
     As a single working mother on a budget, soup was a standard at our table.  It became the mother of invention, as I scoured the Frig for left overs to add.  Prepped on Saturday mornings, I kept it in containers in the freezer, along with several jars of homemade vegetable stock which I used for cooking rice, steaming vegetables or preparing soups of all kinds.
     A martial arts expert, Eco Broker and an 'invent as he goes' kind of guy, Chad Deal's friends have urged him to open a soup restaurant.  "I always use onions and garlic as a basic ingredients.  Then add what I have available, mixing in various greens - kale, bok choy, mustard and arrugala.  I season with pepper sauce, fish sauce, black pepper corns, Braggs, Worchestershire, in any combination to taste."
     But getting the best from what eat, whether it's soup of stew, goes beyond fresh ingredients and seasonings.  Eating is a celebration of life, of what we are taking into our bodies and how it energizes us.  The Navajo healing rituals are meant to bring souls into horzo or harmony with fate.  A ritual of gratitude before eating brings us and the food we eat into a harmonious unity - a shared destiny.
     The sensual awakening of texture, aroma, taste and the sounds of silver against a bowl or tureen can call up satisfying memories of shared meals.  Photographer Pamela Barkentin speaks nostalgically of eating soup at her father's studio.
     "A fashion photographer, his name was George.  He had an incredible space on the top floor of a defunct turn of the century department store at 18th Street and 6th Avenue in NYC.  Being a mad Virgo, he wanted to run the most efficient studio in town.  To work well, he believed everyone's blood sugar should be in the proper place at all times.  What emerged from this madness were the most wonderful soup lunches for everyone working on any particular day.  Gathered around a huge oak table, the soups were often simple - Campbell's with something added to make it special, along with a good bread and cheese.  My dad had the best reputation for his food and community feeling.  I think it was because of the simple ritual of breaking bread (and sipping soup) together."
     Eating communally offers even more layers to explore and savor.  In community, we come alive to the moment through shared laughter and stories.  Dipping the ladle into a communal pot of soup seems to underscore the deep knowledge that, warts, bruises, scars, foolishness and pride aside, we are all extended family.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Five Tips on How Curiosity Can Change Your Life

My mother was fond of telling me that ‘curiosity killed the cat,’ which was her way of saying don’t ask, you’ll be sorry when you learn the answer. What most people don’t realize was that the original proverb wasn’t curiosity killed the cat. It was ‘Care killed the cat.’ In other words, if cat has nine lives, care would wear them all out and that makes a lot of sense. Care and sorrows will definitely weigh you down! Personally, I share the writer Dorothy Parker’s take on curiosity – it’s the cure for boredom. She also believed that curiosity had no cure!

In his book Curious? clinical psychologist and professor at George Mason University, Todd Kashdan describes curiosity as the ‘missing ingredient’ for a meaningful life and writes in detail about the psychology and the neuroscience behind it in his book Curiosity.
Curiosity is a driving force in my life. When feeling down, curiosity sometimes propels one toward laughter. After several unsuccessful attempts to finish an article I was writing, I was ready to indulge my own pity party around the theme of being useless. Going outside with a fresh cup of coffee, I letting my mind wander. It was windy, the kind of day that whipped up hair and skirts. The kind of day that had I been wearing a mini weights in the hem would have proven useful. I began to wonder how many useful inventions were there that had never made it to market. My then husband and I spent an hour laughing ourselves silly as we concocted special forks for eating spaghetti, and a special traveling carrier for our cat. In a better mood, and with an open mind, I was able to finish the article on time. (For a wonderful photographic review of crazy inventions with explanations go to http://www.bezbrige.com/index.php/Interesting-Facts/crazy-inventions-of-the-past.html You can become a fan of his on Facebook: Bez Bridge definitely has a curious mind!)
Curiosity led me to open an intriguing door to a hidden space in San Francisco’s Chinatown where I discovered a circle of several non English speaking women were shaping dough into dollar size pancakes. As I watched, they dropped them onto a large revolving metal disk adding a sliver of paper. At the other end of the assembly line, the pancakes came out folded into the shape of fortune cookies! The women were entertained by my curiosity, giggling and nodding. When I left they offered me a bag of fresh cookies. At home, upon opening the bag, I discovered the fortunes were specialized – the messages were naughty; something one would give as a joke or a party favor to good friends!

Curiosity becomes the mental ‘walk’ I take. I never know where curiosity will lead me. Following my curiosity, I created my blog. Curiosity is behind the questions that lead me to write about women helping women, matters of the heart, spirit, mind and body. Following the muse of curiosity, I’m able to go deeper; to learn more about myself and the world around me.

There are five very powerful ways curiosity can change your life for the better.

Curiosity:
1. keeps the brain healthy; lighting up new circuits and reshaping the
2. brings pleasure – by finding out more about something you may discover
whole new world that you’re passionate about.
3. sparks creativity.
4. brings clarity and improves communications.
5. makes life’s experiences more meaningful.

As a story collector, a teller of stories, I’ve had numerous encounters that have brought new meaning to my life. Curiosity compelled me to follow through these ‘chance’ meetings. There was the older woman I met through D, who treated her with obvious reverence. When she invited me to tea, D encouraged me to go. I was busy, and could have ignored his advice, my curiosity won. That woman turned out to be Dame Freya Stark, renowned author, the first woman to climb and a traveler in the Middle East in the early part of the 20th century. The stories and the photographs and memorabilia in her library opened a whole new world for me. Her knowledge and experience of the Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran gave me a whole new perspective on what had shaped those countries during the 20s and 30s and on into the 40s when she worked for British Intelligence in Yemen.

From Freya, I was reminded that it’s important to keep an open mind.

There was the woman I met in Golden Gate Park while she was walking her dog. She’d given her house an Australian aboriginal name that meant Walk About. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Songlines ) I accepted when she invited me over to visit. Once again, curiosity was golden. She told wondrous stories about rescuing and attending to children during WWII, Vietnam, the Cold War and finally Somalia. During those periods, she lost everyone she held dear – family, her fiancĂ©e and colleagues. Out of her home, she was running a center where she taught lessons in nurturing to young single mothers, and spend time working with the children of crack addicts.

At M’s I learned that courage can be a moment-to-moment decision to keep going no matter what.

To fire up your curiosity there are several things you need to remember:
1. Always ask questions. Why? Why not?
2. Start off the day with the intention of learning something new and finish by
writing what you learned in a journal.
3. Go viral: ask your friends or partner what they learned today.
4. Get rid of any preconceptions before you ask questions.

Being curious is my way of bringing my full attention to the moment. A ‘curiosity adventure’ is a Zen moment!

Albert Einstein once described curiosity as having its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. Taking a cue from Albert – it’s enough in life if one focuses daily on comprehending a little of this mystery.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Finding a Way to Soothe the Savage Beast

For thousands of years, music and song have been used to celebrate new life; to ease the passage for those who are dying. It's played for harvesting and to plant; to instill courage and daring before battle.

Now, science has proven that music, especially baroque, boosts intelligence and helps people learn math and new languages. Now, the Homeland Security research labs have discovered that each of our brains has its own soundtrack, which changes with our mood. They’re making recordings to induce relaxation states for those who are working long hours under intense pressure or sharpen reflexes for emergency workers. I’m not sure I want them mucking around in my brain, and my song's my own to play or learn. Personally, I believe that the universe plays through us when we’re ready to listen.

My first strong connection to music came at age 5 when I was living through my own emergency.

One afternoon, a door-to-door salesman appeared, hauling a large trunk on wheels. Cradled inside were several miniature violins. My mother, a talented pianist, was amused when he put one to his shoulder and began to play a popular tune. When he switched to a Hungarian Czarda, the flare of his bow, and the brilliance of the quick fiery notes sent jolts up and down my spine. I had to have a violin of my own. Mother wasn’t quite convinced. While she went to get him a glass of water, the scrawny scarecrow clad in a shiny black suit, leaned close. Between you and me, he whispered - There’s a chord to soothe the savage beast and one to start a war.

At that moment, wrong or right, I needed to believe him. And when you believe that strongly wishes do come true. I didn’t tell my mother what he’d said, but I was convinced that that violin would soothe the savage beast that was living at our white Colonial house on Hadley St.

It was frustrating at first. Anyone who’s learned to play a violin knows what I’m talking about. I scratched way through Twinkle Twinkle Little Star until I arrived to simple melodic classical pieces. My parents weren’t getting any cozier and my music had become my retreat. I practiced loudly to drown out the yelling. I cried while I beat the strings with my bow. I played until my fingers couldn’t turn the knob to open the door. All the while I kept looking for that elusive chord.

I was 7 when Donny, the boy with Downs Syndrome, moved in next door. I could see he was angry by looking in his eyes. And I wondered, if the anger he so often expressed was because he was stuck. Because nobody understood what he was trying to say.

A few weeks later, on the night of a full moon, Donny started going outside. He would perch on an old tree trunk in his backyard and howl at the sky. It was the saddest sound I'd ever listened to. And no one ever heard him but me.

The next full moon, I picked up the violin, crept down the stairs an to join him. He howled. I played for the pain and the frustration we both felt. For someone to understand; to say that everything would be alright. As the frenzy of emotions settled, Donny went silent. I was no longer playing - I was being played, as if the music of the universe was pouring into me. I could feel it rising up from the center of the earth through the soles of my feet and out the top of my head. I heard it on the wind, that played with the strings. I don't know how long this continued, but when I looked up, Donny was shuffling back inside.

I stood there for while, wondering what would happen next. Would my parents be different? Would love move in? As I drifted to sleep, I realized that what mattered was I’d found a way to soothe the beast inside me.

I played for many years after that, even studied opera for several more. Then I gave it up. I had other things to do. I still listen to music and I dance when spirit moves me to tame the beast, to celebrate. Music gave a voice to my soul.

The Internet - Connecting for Change

Computers, Facebook and email are an integral part of my life today. Google and I have become old and dear friends, as I spend hours pursuing information on ideas, whims, and reading books. I’m hooked on connecting through the Internet.

Last night, I listened to a young musician who created a digital concert of his rendition of an elegant piece by a composer we both love – Erik Satie. His expression was intent as I watched his fingers drift across the keys. The melody spilled into my room. Completely seduced, I felt a wonderful serenity settle over me.

As the music faded, I thought about that mere click, when two strangers, this young man and I, thousands of miles apart met and shared a part of our souls.

In my 30s, while living on an island off the coast of Bahia in the north of Brazil, I wrote long long letters – sometimes as much as thirty pages by the flickering light of a gas lamp on the table. I still recall the faint comforting hiss of the flame. There was no electricity on the island, only a generator that chugged from dusk until around eight o’clock at night when the fishermen and their families went to bed.

When I finished my letter, it would leave on a hollowed out log or a raft, with a sail, taking several hours to reach a town on the mainland. From there it was loaded on a larger boat bound for the capital of Bahia, Salvador da Bahia de Todos Os Santos - 6 hours distant. Finally, trucked and sorted it flew to the States. Usually 6-8 weeks had passed, sometimes more when it finally arrived at its destination. Sometimes it seemed as if I was writing to the moon.

I can only imagine how my life seemed for my friends when my 'journals' spoke of poisonous snakes in my garden, learning to use a machete, buying lobster for 25 cents a kilo and bathing clothed in the town bath that had been built by the Dutch in the 1600s. I wondered if they felt, as I did, the magic of the sunset hour when I joined the women in the village perched on a wall overlooking the sea – watching for the return of the men, praying that that siren and Goddess of the sea, Yemanja, hadn't seduced them to jump overboard and into her arms.

Events that defined the rest of the world sometimes arrived on decade old newspapers wrapped around packages sent to the villagers. My return mail arrived intermittently; depending on the delivery system of course (I later learned that mail was sometimes purposely dumped into the sea.) In addition to the mysteries of the postal system, allowance for the tempo and rhythms of the busy lives of my friends, had to be figured in. Answers could be months in coming. But my friends and I remained connected and for that I'm grateful.

Now, we have the Internet!

According to the mystic Jesuit priest, Teillard De Chardin, the evolution of humans would occur in two stages. The first had to do with the growth of population and the accompanying development of trade, medicine, science, the arts, education and so forth.

The second stage, which is what we are living through now is called the ‘unifying stage’. The defining factor for this period is not the survival of the fittest, but our ability to meet and unify.

The most important part of this second segment of was what he called the ‘Noosphere’ which he described as a ‘living membrane stretched like a film over the lustrous surface of the star which holds us… This envelope was not only conscious, but thinking...the Very Soul of the Earth."

I believe Chardin’s stunning vision is playing out on the Internet, in ways we haven’t anticipated. There is an enhancement, a new convergence of people from all corners of the globe as we join, meet and sign on with groups of like visions. Whether it's through the environment, music, the arts, sports, politics, social justice, age, food...what is in our minds and hearts is being downloaded by millions – soul to soul. And if we tuck purpose and our intent for a positive future as we send ourselves through the Noosphere, who knows what those connections will give birth to. As long as those connections are being made, we're enhancing Teillhard's theory of unity becoming the defining factor of now.

It’s after midnight and I’ve finally managed to finish this post. Wherever you are in the Noosphere, my anam cara…this is me hoping that I’m connecting with you…

p.s. thought for the day - turn a good woman loose and everything is at risk!

Kitchen Alchemy

The egg yolks pool in the mixing bowl, bright orange with nicely domed tops - signs of true freshness. Cooked lightly in truffle oil with a side of mixed greens brushed with dark virgin olive oil, a few drops of lemon juice and a few grains of sea salt: A breakfast menu conceived of by my daughter, Chloe, these savory proteins and greens make a wonderful start to the day.

I had to laugh when I heard myself humming that old egg commercial ditty - the incredible, edible egg. I love eggs and Chloe loves to remind me of when she was small and I would ask if she'd like to have breakfast for dinner. Apart from my fondness for breakfast, scrambled eggs made this single mom's life much easier.

Sadly, all those years on the mommy track took a toll on any attraction the kitchen cooking once held. Gone were the sensuous, leisurely hours of preparation and eating I enjoyed while living in Italy. Admittedly, my hands and my heart for cooking had chilled.

It was during that time abroad that I learned to make thick, gloriously satisfying frittatas stuffed with lightly sauteed veggies. With Nando, a dear friend and brilliant cook, I eagerly watched the miracles of finely cooked eggs unfold - slices of a veal pastry loaf which revealed an egg at the center; pasta a la Carbonara, pasta with thick bacon chunks and a simple egg sauce; airy-pureed potatoes in a baked potato shell with an egg in the center and dusted with parmesan. Tiny individual cheese souffles bubbling up from the center of baked artichokes.

Nando taught me that the best scrambled eggs were cooked bagnomaria style, letting the egg pan nestle in a boiling pot of water on the stove top. Stirring all the while, this allows the eggs to cook slowly. The result is a creamy moist texture.

Interestingly, the name bagnomaria literally translates to Maria's bath and most likely derives from a medieval female alchemist called Maria . In France, it's called bainmarie.

Rediscovering in my 60s, the subtle layers of scents and colors, the taste on my tongue of well-prepared meal is a return to something deeper - kitchen alchemy that mysterious process from which magicians turn metals into gold. Practicing kitchen alchemy adds substance to my soul.

Maria would have understood...

p.s. take a look at one of my favorite Italian cookbooks!

The Women's Tent - Six Ways to Own Your Power Individually & Collectively

The phrase ‘women hold up half the sky’ is being heard more and more from all directions. And although women may, by their sheer numbers hold up half the sky, it’s hard to believe that when you hear the Taliban proclaim men have the right to starve disobedient wives. Or another painful story appears about the murder and abuse occurring daily across the United States. Those are the extremes of terrorist acts against women. Then there are other stores, less high profile but no less important about lack of access to a good education, health care for women and children.

That said, if you remove your focus from the harsh headlines and look from the side of your eyes, you’ll begin to learn that indeed new schools and hospitals are being built - by women for women. Women are pooling their resources and micro financing is being extended to women to start small businesses. The positive outcomes of these loans to women has appeared in reports by the World Bank and CARE. When women profit, they spend what they gain on food and education for their families and their communities. In their August 17th New York Times article ‘The Women’s Crusade,’ Nicolas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn wrote that ‘the world is finding out that women and children are not the problem; they’re the solution.

The timing of these events is no accident. The earth is crying out for women to own their power; personally and collectively. It’s telling us we’re needed right now to help steer the planet toward a better future - knowing all the while that we may not succeed. It’s true that many women are already giving time and money to help other women, but with to-do lists that could sink a battleship, many of us are wondering how we can build on what has begun. How can we sustain the work of empowering others when all too often we neglect to empower ourselves.

As I’ve grown older, more and more I’ve found myself stepping inside the women’s tent to meet female friends and experience the collective power of our circle. There, while storms of uncertainty, conflict and chaos rage outside, I bask in the knowledge that I’m not alone. Each visit is a healing experience, and as I heal, the earth heals.

Inside the tent, I can examine the wounds that are my mother’s legacy - the physical and emotional abuse; the expectations she expected me to fulfill – and feel the soothing balm of the women’s hands and voices. I listen to the stories of the struggles, courage and endurance of grandmothers and ancestors that remind me we’re all connected. That the finest sword is tempered by the hottest flame and when it cuts, there are no ragged edges left to fester. They tell me that while some rules are necessary, the ones that dampen our spirits must be broken.

Many purposes can be served inside the tent, but they all rest on one primal aspect: As a woman, whether you’ve have children or not, you possess the ‘mother’ gene. The gene that prompts you to nourish, nurture; to create new life in the form of ideas and actions; the gene of the woman warrior who carves out a safe path for new life and tends to the elders. Inside the tent, power grows exponentially.

Several suggestions for strengthening the tent poles:

1) Leave the chores for later; eventually, they’ll wait. Having a few moments with a ‘sister’ may not happen tomorrow or ever again.

2) Collect daughters and bring them to the tent. With my daughter living at a distance, I’ve found myself collecting ‘daughters’. They don’t live in my home, but they occupy my heart and my mind. We meet for coffee or breakfast, and take walks. They talk; I listen. I make an effort not to give advice, but to frame any suggestions I may have as questions. Then I begin to introduce them to other women I know. Eventually, these daughters will bring others and more poles will go up.

3) Bear witness: Tell another woman how she beautiful she is; how wonderful, capable and courageous she is. Create and keep around year round mother’s day cards that share a quote from the poet Rumi – I love you not only for what you are, but for what I am when I am with you…

4) Be the hearth: Keep the heart fires burning and the door open for weary women. They may be seeking silence in a safe place.

5) Share stories about being afraid and excited as doors were broken down. The kind of stories that stir the blood and hold the seeds of creative civil disobedience. A good woman friend, M. once described how she got the attention of the mayor who’d refused to listen to her objective of helping children who were suffering through a particularly hot summer in the city. Assembling a neighborhood group of toddlers to teens, they went to city hall. There they occupied all six cars of an elevator bank while singing round after round of Frere Jacques. An agreement was reached.

6) Get naked. Be vulnerable by stripping off your barriers and defenses to speak honestly and openly. Rumi once wrote If you’re unwilling to undress don’t enter into the stream of Truth. Stay where you are. A very boring and even deadly thing to do. I’ve found that being naked in the women’s tent, helps me gather the strength to stand naked outside.

Men have a similar aspect within and often express it in different ways than we do. However, a partnership between a man and woman that’s based on these values is extraordinarily gratifying. I’m blessed to have men friends with whom I share that kind of relationship, but I still thrive with the intimate connection that comes from women sitting down together.

The Beauty of Imperfection

It’s no secret that getting older has it own special set of challenges—from changes in hormonal levels, metabolism, to everything on our body heading south or haywire. We’re forgetting more and sleeping less. Some are losing their hair; everyone is acquiring more wrinkles. The facts are that in my sixties, I’m not as slim as before, my memory lapses happen more often. This aging ‘thing’ is moving into my life with such vigor that it sometimes feels as if I’m being possessed.

However, what has truly taken over my life is a need to know more about my true nature; to find the unique gifts and possibilities that are mine to use.

While redirecting and rethinking who I am and what I can do, I began to realize that the biggest thing I needed to do was learn to forgive myself, to accept that I’d missed a number of opportunities for growth and fulfillment in different ways. I’ll never have a Master’s degree. I won’t be trekking in the Himalayas. There are other things I won’t be or do. Exciting goals, I'd promised myself. For instance, while working in the movie business, I dreamed of heading up my own movie production company. A company that would make provocative beautiful films which would lead me to winning recognition and maybe even an Oscar. Now, I realize that being an executive, spending huge chunks of time without a personal life wasn’t something I really wanted. A single mom, I wanted to spend more time with my daughter; discovering who she was, watch her grow. However, at the time, I still felt ashamed and somewhat guilty for not attempting to achieve the ‘ideal’ image of top exec/super mom/woman. At that point, I felt like a ‘failure.’ Seeing the rich life my daughter now lives, it’s apparent that what I did was spot on. Remembering what we shared—the beauty and the challenges—reaffirms the vibrant livingness of my life.

I’ve been married twice; divorced twice. Two times when I felt like a failure. Looking back, I finally realized—duh—that there was truth to the old adage “it takes two to tango.” Those relationships were my education. For personal growth, I needed what they had to give. But I still have moments when I’m too self critical; sometimes for a little too long.

Finally, I found Charlie. He popped up while I was staying on a farm, helping a writer friend edit a book. It was snowing outside, the wood stove was burning when I spied some old video tapes featuring Charlie Chaplin as “The Little Tramp.” A man I later discovered had a childhood straight out of a Dickens novel, as an adult, his life was filled with drama, scandal, pain and loss. After reading about Charlie’s life, I was amazed that he’d continued to make people laugh, much less even create with the brilliance that he did. Then I read something he said: To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it!

That dusty, shabby, fumbling little tramp was someone who endured. When knocked off his feet, or something went wrong, he picked himself up, shrugged, and started all over again. I loved the character’s sweetness.

Years have passed, and I still find myself reaching out to Charlie. I've become better at shrugging after inserting my foot in my mouth. Again! I’m human, I remind myself and the stress level drops into the basement. Doesn’t mean my blood pressure won’t rise again. It’s inevitable I’ll feel I’ve failed to do my best in some way or another again. It’s part of the process of ‘becoming’ which consists of losing my self to doubts and fears. If I can laugh, or even smile, I’m able to discern the seeds of opportunity that ‘failure’ holds at its heart.

So what if I’m in my sixties ... in many ways my life keeps getting better because Charlie reminds me that there's beauty in imperfection.

Ten Tips for Mastering Loneliness

As a writer, I happily spend hours of alone time and when the writing is going well, I draw an invisible circle around me to fend off others. Surfacing days later – I feel disoriented. My anchors are gone; those friends whose calls I didn’t return are busy or away. A voice inside says life has passed me by! That’s when it hits: loneliness. Believe me, when I say it hurts.

As social animals, it’s our nature to seek contact with others and in solitude we discover relief from the chatter of our days. It allows us to travel to the heart of our selves, to find strength by touching the sweet wildness that dwells there.

But loneliness is different. Everyone has experienced it at one time or another. Why we feel lonely, how we got there and how deep it goes varies. Sometimes it can be as simple as drowning in the proverbial ‘glass of water’; like the weekend when no one is available for coffee, dinner or a chat.

Or maybe, we’ve just read the headlines or watched the news about the chaos, conflict and uncertainty of today’s world. If you’re single, or even if you’re not, those stories can trigger feelings of fear, helplessness and ultimately loneliness.

Grief from loss of a loved one is one of the primary reasons that people experience loneliness. Like many single mothers, I’ve experienced the post partum chill of loneliness when my daughter left for college. I’d lost her and my key role in her life.

If loneliness lasts too long, it can easily turn into depression and breaking free of depression may require professional help.

Undoubtedly, I’ll visit Lonely Town again and again, but I’ve found ways to avoid staying there for too long. Here’s my top ten list of tips:

1. Acknowledge your lonely feelings: Roar or bellow out the why and the what. If you keep them inside, you’ll turn numb, resentful or even bitter. Dramatically vocalizing the lonely blues brings instant physical and emotional release.
2. Think outside the box! Do something you’ve told yourself you didn’t have time for. If you have time to be lonely, you have time to take a class on something that sparks your interest. Who knows where that curiosity could lead!
3. Journal about the local flora & fauna: I love coffee bars, where I record my observations about the people around me. Keeping it light, I let my imagination go wild with ‘what if’s’. Snickers, then giggles bubble up. By the time I get home, I’m laughing out loud.
4. Have a pot luck supper once a week. Start at your house and move it around your circle of friends. Everyone loves to show off their special dish. If you ask each friend to bring one more friend, you may find someone you'll cherish for the long term. I once met a boyfriend that way. Or the person you meet may have something interesting to tell you, even if you only connect once.
5. Take a mindfulness walk: Maintain a slow pace, breathe deeply and open your senses. According to the Buddhist teacher Thich Nat Hanh, by walking mindfully, “We generate peace within our body, our consciousness. We embrace and heal the pain, the sorrow, the fear in us. It's the foundation for helping peace spread into a reality in the world.”
6. Dance! It’s a great way to lose weight, and leave loneliness behind while you learn some new moves. As a lonely child violinist, I searched for the chord that would soothe the savage beast. Music gave me confidence, serenity and a new perspective on life. As an adult, reggae and salsa unlock my exuberant wild woman.
7. Connect through technology: Use Skype, the internet telephone service that allows you to make free long-distance calls and see each other live on computer screens. (The equipment is inexpensive and easy to use).
Create your own blog to share ideas, thoughts, family and family photos; free at www.blogger.com or www.wordpress.org
Go on facebook at www.facebook.com In 24 hours I had dozens of new friends and made contact with people I hadn’t seen or talked to in years! (But don’t let technology take over face to face, in the same room contact.)
8. Fake it until it’s real. Find your inner ‘laughing Buddha’ by googling a local teacher for the new ‘laughter yoga’. It really works and you don’t have to be a contortionist to do it! People have laughed themselves physically well - why not laugh yourself emotionally well.
9. Put something into the game of life – it could prove to be the gift that keeps on giving. According to a study by the Corporation for National and Community Service, volunteers live longer; have higher functional ability, lower rates of depression and less incidence of heart disease. Bottom line: you meet people; enter into the debate, while learning something new! If you’re housebound, volunteer as a mentor online. Not only helping others, a way to meet people of like mind.
10. Make a dump date: If you’re feeling lonely and depressed, ask a good friend if they’d be willing to have ‘dumping session’. This allows for a compassionate dialogue within the framework of a limited prescribed time period. It prevents you from turning into someone like that incessant nagger/whiner who lives down the street.

Above all, don’t give up!